MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Trade negotiators plan to take small steps forward in a second round of talks to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) this weekend, trying to ignore daily threats from U.S. President Donald Trump to tear it up if he does not get his way.
Trump has used Twitter, press conferences and speeches to attack NAFTA in recent days, a ploy Mexican and Canadian officials regard as a negotiating strategy to wring concessions, but which has heightened uncertainty over the accord.
“Hopefully we can renegotiate it, but if we can‘t, we’ll terminate it and we’ll start all over again with a real deal,” Trump told cheering workers at a factory in Missouri on Wednesday, as Mexico’s foreign and trade ministers met their U.S. counterparts in Washington to keep relations on track.
Away from the diplomatic noise, trade experts from the three NAFTA nations hope to advance the revamp during the five days of talks in Mexico that start on Friday by working through areas of greater consensus before turning to trickier issues.
“We want to see positive signs of progress at the negotiating tables,” said Moises Kalach, head of the international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby, which is leading the private sector in the talks. “Hopefully we’ll get it, even if it doesn’t have to be stated publicly. Hopefully we’ll start getting closure on some issues.”
Overall, the Mexican round, which follows talks two weeks ago in Washington, is expected to define more clearly the priorities of each nation rather than yield major breakthroughs.
The emergence of detailed positions on the tougher points looks less likely in this round, officials said.
Kalach and one Mexican negotiator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saw broad agreement between the NAFTA members on how to improve conditions for small businesses, as well as in salvaging elements of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord that Trump ditched after taking office.
Some consensus was forged between the three countries when the TPP was finalized in 2015 on issues including the environment, anti-corruption, labor rules and digital trade.
More divisive issues that could enter the talks range from exploring the scope to raise NAFTA content requirements for autos to the contested U.S. demand to scrap the so-called Chapter 19 dispute settlement mechanism for resolving complaints about illegal subsidies and dumping, officials say.
A key plank of the U.S. strategy is how to reduce its trade deficit with Mexico, which has sent negotiators scrambling for creative ways to rebalance trade, Kalach said.
One hope is that Mexico’s incipient oil and gas sector opening will result in more imports and infrastructure investment from U.S. companies, some of which have already entered the market, such as Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp.
Folding that reform into NAFTA in a way that would make any attempt to unwind it politically costly for a future Mexican government would give U.S. and Canadian investors more security, Kalach and the Mexican negotiator said.
The risk the reform will stall has preoccupied officials in the region because the current front-runner for Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, opposed the opening of the energy industry.
“The best thing (the United States and Canada) can do is protect NAFTA because this essentially protects their investments,” said Kalach.
Trump has accused Mexico and Canada of being “very difficult”, and officials from both countries say his words come as little surprise given his confrontational negotiating style.
Still, Mexico’s government has touted a back-up plan, seeing a “high risk” that NAFTA could unravel.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday shrugged off the threats and Canadian officials close to the process said they remained fully focused on the talks.
“There are always going to be words thrown about here and there but ... we will continue to work seriously and respectfully to improve NAFTA to benefit not just Canadians but our American and Mexican friends as well,” Trudeau said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer declined to comment directly on how Trump’s comments would affect the talks. However, trade experts say they are unlikely to foster a spirit of cooperation.
“I think his tweets and statements are just complicating what’s already a difficult negotiation,” said Wendy Cutler, a former deputy USTR and lead U.S. negotiator for the TPP.
“I think it will embolden the naysayers in Canada and Mexico who don’t want to move in certain areas by telling the negotiators, ‘don’t move on these issues because the president has already said he probably won’t sign off on this deal’”.
Additional reporting by David Lawder in Washington, David Ljunngren in Ottawa and Anthony Esposito in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Hay